As winter gradually melts into spring here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, our free-range chickens are beginning to rediscover the joys of snow-free earth. Up until recently they had preferred the shelter and safety of the coop but with the warmer weather they are ready to get back outside.
Our winters can be hard and long, so whenever we add a new animal or operation to the farm, we always start by planning for the winter months. This was our second winter with chickens and it was more difficult than the first. You never realize how easy you have something until challenges arise to provide a new perspective. Some of these challenges included winter molting and other feather issues, minor infections, and sparring roosters.
These challenges meant I spent more time caring for our chickens, and as such, thinking about ways to make the next winter better for all involved. My vet tech skills have certainly improved thanks to new experiences with treating injuries, bathing chickens, and setting up special sleeping quarters for half-naked molting chickens during the freezing nights of February.
Despite the expected and unexpected health issues our flock faced this winter, there were a number of things that made life easier. Some are the result of good planning, such as the design of our coop, while others relate to finding ways to keep chickens entertained while also promoting healthy living conditions. We are always learning and below we outline some of our successful experiments for winter chicken keeping.
Good Coop Design
When we decided to add chickens, I researched various coop designs to not only keep predators out, but also to keep our flock healthy and protected during the winter months when they are more closely confined. Bad things can and do happen with bored chickens in a small space!
One of the best decisions we made when building our coop was adding a greenhouse/potting room on the front that is separated by a door (#stackingfunctions). The chickens only have access to this front room during the winter months when they are spending nearly all of their time in the coop. This also happens to be the time of year when I have no use for the space.
This doubles the coop size when we need it and ensures that the chickens have room to spread out. The shelves provide new and different spaces for the chickens to either hang out or to get away from each other. The hens lower on the pecking order appreciate a refuge from more aggressive flock mates and sometimes our young and amorous rooster Fabian.
This past fall and winter I discovered new benefits to this additional space – being able to easily separate chickens from the rest of the flock. This room really came in handy when we had a bunch of younger chickens that the adults liked to scare away from the food. I was able to train them to come inside so they could feed without fear of being bullied away. I’ve also used the greenhouse room to examine and provide a safe space to injured chickens as well as to separate sparring roosters when they decided they were no longer friends.
In the last few months, I also found it helpful to add a large dog crate we use for housing our broody hens and their chicks once they leave the nesting box (shown in the photo above). Aside from providing another ready-made space to temporarily separate a chicken while keeping them around the rest of the flock, the hens appreciated having this partitioned space that they could seek refuge in. Our molting hens in particular liked having this area that allowed them to hide out while still being able to scratch around and dust bath with the flock. Although it’s been awhile since I needed to use the crate, I’ve left it primarily so the hens can dart around the back when wishing to evade the rooster.
When designing the coop, one of my top priorities was ensuring adequate year-round ventilation. Chickens are not like people and they don’t need an insulated or heated coop as long as they are healthy, have robust feathers, and don’t have cold drafts blowing on them. Humidity is the main cause of frost bite and this can be fixed by providing proper ventilation year-round.
It’s important to distinguish between ventilation and drafts. We have two screened windows at the top of our coop that are open all year as well as interior openings between the coop and the greenhouse that ensures fresh air in both spaces. This air movement occurs higher up and doesn’t cause drafts to blow on our chickens – even when they are sitting on their roosts. These two upper windows are barely visible in the photo below with the snow on the greenhouse roof.
We added several windows a little above roosting height to help cool the coop in the summer (all openings in our coop have half inch hardware cloth nailed over them). During cold or inclement weather, we can easily close the windows to avoid drafts.
We use the deep bedding method in our coop, which has an earthen floor. My favorite bedding materials are leaves and shredded paper because they are free, light, and easy to store and work with. The chickens prefer the leaves since they come with little goodies for them to hunt (e.g., bugs, grass, seeds). Each spring and fall we collect bags of leaves from our local public works yard waste collection area.
Any carbon-based bedding material will do since it helps balance the high nitrogen levels in chicken poop. Each morning, I rake some of the bedding material the chickens have scratched towards their feed and waterers back under the roosts. I then throw some snacks to encourage the chickens to mix everything up. Periodically I add new bedding material to ensure a proper carbon to nitrogen ratio, which eliminates bad odors from our coop, which can harm the chickens’ respiratory system and lead to poor health.
In the greenhouse, we need to use less deep bedding since the chickens don’t roost on this side (and thus have less poop to balance out). This side also stays drier and the chickens gravitate towards the sandy earthen floor for dust bathing. Every few days we also add wood ash from our woodstove that the chickens like to eat (the little charcoal bits) and dust bath in.
I remove the bedding each spring and fall. This valuable material is either used directly or aged further depending on the crops we are mulching and fertilizing. Aside from the benefits to our gardens, using deep bedding helps manage moisture as well as keeps things a little warmer for the chickens in the winter.
During the shorter days of winter, egg production naturally slows down. It’s hard work to lay an egg every day or two so I can’t fault the hens for taking a break! As a general rule, we try to raise our animals in a way that allows them to exhibit their natural behaviors. We therefore don’t use supplemental lighting to artificially boost egg production.
Instead, we designed the coop in a way that offered as much natural light as possible in all seasons. We did this by adding a fixed window on the east side of the coop that lets in natural light even when the other windows and/or coop doors are closed. In the winter, the biggest source of natural light and even heat (when the sun is out) is provided from the greenhouse. On this side there are three large windows along with a smaller window on the entry door. On sunny days, it’s common to find most of the flock basking in the warm sun rays!
Keeping Chickens Healthy
Happy chickens make for healthy chickens. Unfortunately, illness and injuries still happen to happy chickens. Similar to humans, stress can be a major contributing factor. Chickens lower on the pecking order are particularly vulnerable since they are the most harassed, which can impact their access to food, water, nesting boxes, dust bathing, and roost spots.
There are a variety of ways we try to minimize these stresses, from providing a predator-safe coop, to offering ample space, to ensuring sufficient access to high quality food and clean water (using multiple feeders and waterers). The healthier the flock is going into the winter the better!
We also try to offer the best feed we can and supplement when necessary. For example, in the fall when the majority of the chickens are starting to molt, we provide higher protein feed since feathers are nearly all protein. We also provide healthy snacks as the first snows reduce outside foraging activities. These include sunflower seeds and any foraged or grown foods (e.g., autumn olive berries, cooked potatoes, flaxseed, dried comfrey leaves, etc.). As winter gradually melts into spring here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, our free-range chickens are beginning to rediscover the joys of snow-free earth. Up until recently they had preferred the shelter and safety of the coop but with the warmer weather they are ready to get backchickens and replaced it with new water until the bones were ready to be ground down.
In the winter we also like to incorporate various herbs into the chickens water and food. As an off-grid farm we do not use a water heater so each night we place a large pot of herbed water on the woodstove so that the chickens will have warm water in the morning. Apple cider vinegar and homemade garlic water is also added to their water. Garlic, which has potent medicinal properties, is quartered and kept in a glass jar with a lid with plain water. Each morning I pour out the nutritious and probiotic garlic water and refill with new water. The garlic will gradually breakdown and a new clove is added.
Finally, we ferment chicken feed year-round. In the winter they are given free-choice dry feed and fermented feed. This year I also fermented a higher protein feed that was given specifically to late molting chickens. I also tried adding some of my tulsi tincture, which has been shown to help livestock cope with cold stress (among other benefits).
While all of this may sound excessive, each new addition was added gradually and I have had fun learning about and experimenting with new ways to help support the natural health of our chickens. It also helps when the chickens respond so favorably to each new addition! Many of these additions are only done in the winter when the chickens can’t self-medicate with their free-range foraging.
Keeping Chickens Entertained
Before we had chickens I never gave much thought to their entertainment. In the summer, the chickens easily entertain themselves while scratching around the farm in search for food or lounging under or in the safety of a pine tree. This all changes when they are cooped up together for many months in the winter. Keeping chickens entertained is essential to stave off boredom, which can bring on bullying.
I consider the use of deep bedding to be a form of entertainment since it helps satisfy their desire to scratch around for food. As previously mentioned, throwing healthy treats into the bedding enhances their enjoyment as well. A few times a week we also give our chickens food scraps. By offering these outdoors it helps incentivize the chickens to get out of the coop and by scratching around in the snow and ice, this also helps maintain their toe nails.
Offering any novelty is welcome in the winter. Therefore, we are always keeping an eye out for new things to offer the chickens. As previously mentioned, we were happy to discover they not only like to dust bath in wood ash but also like eat it since it provides minerals such as calcium and potassium. I started adding pine needles since they are high in vitamin C and the chickens love them! The fallen branches and clumps are easy to collect from our driveway all winter and within hours the chickens will polish off most of the needles!
We also look for ways to partner with other local businesses or families to redirect resources that may otherwise be landfilled. A local kombucha business was happy to provide us with their extra scobys. The chickens love to eat these slimy discs that are full of probiotics. There are a few local restaurants that collect their organic wastes, one of which is often full of eggshells that ensure our chickens have a steady supply of free-choice calcium. Lastly, we also discovered that the chickens like bananas and have been grateful to redirect overripe bananas from a local hotel.
In general, the greater variety of healthy foods you can provide for chickens the more entertained they will be in the winter when natural sources of food are buried under snow or frozen ground. As a general rule, we try to avoid foods that aren’t good for chickens. Because you are what you eat eats.